New Ways of Implementing a Old Strategy: “Managed Retreat” (500 words)

by Allen Kratz, Principal, Resilience Works, LLC


Avoid “managed retreat”

Challenge: Create a better upland life for community members displaced from repetetively flooded waterfront homes.

New model & new language: Moving up — to higher ground, better housing, job opportunities, transportation.

When shoreline dwellings repeatedly suffer weather-related flooding, communities face a dilemma.  Rebuild or not?  “Not” is what experts often call “managed retreat.” Governments use public money to buy private properties and level them.  The newly vacant land returns to its former function.  It soaks up excess rain and coastal storm surges.

That’s good policy, along the coast and inland, too. 

After the Missouri River flooded the Cedar City neighborhood of 400 people in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1993 and 1995, town leaders decided that using federal flood-insurance proceeds to rebuild was a poor use of tax dollars.  Instead, they bought out flooded property owners.  The municipality spared itself the future costs of repetitive flooding.

Unfortunately, that type of forward-thinking investment in future resiliency is needlessly tainted by negative language, “managed retreat.”  “Retreat” signifies “surrender.”  The only thig worse than managed retreat would be chaotic retreat!   Neither is needed. 

The new model – and the new language – should be “Moving Up!”  Moving up to higher ground, of course.  And – significant -- moving up to better housing, more employment opportunities, healthier living and easier transportation.

New York City may be poised to move up in that direction.  “Resilience.  Equity. Health.”  Those are the three lenses through which New Yorkers will look at policies to guide the 2020 plan for the city’s 520 miles of coastal, estuary and riverine waterfront, notes Michael Marrella, the city’s director of waterfront planning,

Those are the three legs of a solid platform for mitigating repetitive flood risk. In addition to achieving resilience, today’s new concept of “moving up” encompasses equity and health:  mitigating substandard housing, food deserts, faulty infrastructure, inadequate transportation, environmental hazards and sparse health care.

In short, moving up means community leaders will promote and implement new public policies to ensure that displaced residents enjoy a higher quality of life.

That form of new attention to community building inherits well-established precedents.  America’s legal system already requires equitable compensation for land condemned for a public purpose.  Land-use law recognizes the benefit transferring development rights (TDR) from a valuable community resource (like historic Grand Central Terminal) to a receiving area that offers bonuses for a property owner who loses the right to develop a “preservation area.”

Communities can adapt the principles of TDR to flood-risk reduction as well:  Find an upland area ripe for improvement and invest public- and private-sector dollars to rehabilitate substandard housing, stimulate small-business growth and support a walk-in health facility in the receiving area.

Transportation that is safe, convenient, reliable and affordable becomes an important avenue for upward mobility.  Specifically, one way to upgrade the lives of community members displaced from waterfront property is ensuring high-quality multimodal options:  pedestrian paths, bike-sharing, bike lanes, car sharing, express buses, improved rail and subway service, says transportation expert Stewart Mader, who has been published by the Mobility Lab research group.  Similar opportunities exist in other elements of community life.

 “Managed retreat” generates intense emotions – understandably.  All the more reason for community members, chief resilience officers, planners and public officials to find new ways to create new community for those who have sold their homes and business in the face of climate change.  Onward and upward.  There’s no retreating from the important task of building community!